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Are Wet Houses Really Helping Those With Alcohol Addiction?

Homeless shelters offer temporary refuge for those in need but often have strict policies against alcohol and drugs of any kind. They also often require individuals to be sober, which can be difficult for those struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD), the clinical term for alcohol addiction. In contrast, “wet houses” provide stable housing for individuals with severe AUD, but allow them to drink. Rather than abstinence, wet houses focus on harm reduction, aiming to reduce the risks associated with homelessness and alcohol addiction. Understandably, wet houses are not without controversy.

What Is a Wet House?

A wet house is a residence designed for individuals with severe alcohol use disorder (AUD), a chronic medical condition where it is difficult for a person to control their use of alcohol, despite experiencing negative health, social, and work consequences.

Unlike traditional homeless shelters, wet houses allow residents to continue drinking. The primary goals of wet houses are 1) harm reduction, and 2) to provide a stable living environment, which may reduce medical costs, public intoxication, and interactions with law enforcement. While staff may offer help and support to residents, the focus is on minimizing the risks associated with homelessness and AUD, rather than abstinence.

Wet House Supporters

Whether wet houses reduce the risks associated with homelessness and alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a matter of ongoing debate. One study by the University of Washington found wet house residents tend to drink less and are more inclined to accept alcohol treatment once in a stable environment. However, long-term outcomes vary among residents and most wet house facilities don’t offer rehab options on-site. Still, some argue wet houses are a pragmatic approach to mitigating the immediate risks of homelessness and AUD.

One compelling argument in favor of wet houses is that individuals experiencing homelessness with AUD incur the highest number of physical injuries necessitating emergency transportation and hospital services, which are ultimately funded by the city’s taxpayers. To tackle this issue, several wet houses have medical professionals on-site or nearby to provide immediate treatment for the ill and injured.

The Wet House Controversy

However, not everyone embraces the idea of establishing shelters designed to provide a safe drinking environment. Many taxpayers oppose funding initiatives that offer free alcohol or provide stipends for residents to spend as they wish, including substances like alcohol or drugs. They also argue that elected officials would not condone shelters distributing heroin to homeless individuals struggling with heroin addiction.

Despite the criticism, several cities have persistently pursued the construction of wet houses, with San Francisco Mayor Bevan Dufty being a prominent advocate of the movement since 2010, though the idea has faced ongoing opposition and earned the nickname “bunks for drunks.” It’s worth noting that critics argue there should be no differentiation between substances; addiction remains a challenge regardless of a person’s drug of choice.

A Pioneer Wet House Facility

Seattle, Washington is home to one of the first wet house facilities, 1811 Eastlake. The original residents, predominantly men, were selected from a list of 200 of the most frequent users of the public hospital, jail, and sobering center in Seattle. They also had to be unsuccessful in conventional recovery programs no less than six times.

1811 Eastlake allows residents to drink on-site. The facility houses 75 people and has seen several positive outcomes since opening in 2005:

  • The “housing first” approach led to only 23% of residents returning to the streets within two years.
  • The average alcohol consumption of residents decreased by 7-8% every three months.
  • On their heaviest drinking days, residents consumed an average of 26 drinks, down from 40.
  • This reduction in alcohol use resulted in significant cost savings: over $4,000 less per person every month.
  • Annually, the average cost per person dropped from $86,000 to just over $13,000.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction

For all the milestones, the end result for many wet house residents is not a good one. While some have claimed the programs offer “pre-recovery housing,” there is no expectation that the residents will achieve and maintain abstinence. Bill Hobson, the Executive Director of 1811 Eastlake admits the best hope for most residents is that they’ll drink less. However, the likelihood that they’ll maintain recovery is slim, given their age, history, and severity of alcohol use disorder (AUD).

While wet houses may reduce the risks associated with homelessness and AUD, they do little to address the underlying causes that contribute to addiction. The good news is treatment for alcohol misuse and addiction is available. Treatment varies depending on an individual’s needs but often begins with a period of medical detox to safely manage withdrawal symptoms. Following medical detox, patients may transition to inpatient rehab, which provides intensive, structured therapy and support within a residential setting. Outpatient rehab is another treatment setting that offers therapy and support on a less intensive basis. With outpatient rehab, patients receive treatment during the day but live at home or in a sober living facility. Following treatment, many patients participate in various aftercare activities to prevent relapse.

Find Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

You can start your search for alcohol addiction treatment by contacting your primary care physician (PCP) or a mental health practitioner for treatment recommendations. You can also contact American Addiction Centers (AAC) at 24 hours a day to learn more about treatment options for alcohol addiction. AAC is a leading provider of evidence-based addiction treatment with facilities across the U.S. Our team of admissions navigators can answer any questions you might have, verify your insurance, and help you with the admissions process once you’re ready.


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